Bridging the digital divide

Attendees at Health and Care Innovation Expo 2014 explored the challenges for healthcare in making increased use of digital channels to engage with patients.

Around 11 million people in England lack basic digital skills, with around 7 million having never used the internet. Health literacy is closely linked to improved outcomes for patients; with information being presented more and more online it’s vital that the NHS ensures that these patients aren’t excluded.

The panel session titled ‘Is digital healthcare increasing or decreasing equality?’ brought together leading experts to discuss how we can turn things on their heads and deliver digital accessibility for all.

Dr Arvind Madan, GP and Chief Executive Officer of Hurley Group, presented his experiences of working with patients and making use of digital channels. He surmised that use of digital technologies may increase inequality in the short term however will improve access for all in the medium to long term.

‘Is digital healthcare increasing or decreasing equality?’ was a tricky question to answer, stated Dr Howard Leicester, a researcher into patient informatics. Howard proposed that we need to turn this question on its head. Digital accessibility really means that information is easy to find and use, no matter what the platform.

John Coulthard, Director of Customer Relations at NHS England, encouraged attendees to think in terms of the NHS Constitution and its values when developing digital activity. The NHS Constitution provides a fundamental ideas to underpin digital activities, “When you pay attention to the NHS Constitution you can’t go wrong,” he said.

Bob Gann, NHS England’s Programme Director for widening digital participation, spoke passionately about the mandate for NHS England and its role in significantly increasing the use of technology to help people to manage their health. The people that are not online, he stated, are exactly those people that we need to reach. They are often people that use the NHS the most- the elderly and people with long term conditions.

NHS England has a programme of work to train and support 100,000 people per year to get online. This work includes social prescribing, i.e. encouraging GPs to prescribe for their patients to go and learn how to use digital technologies.

Summarising, Bob stated that digital services are a positive force for equality. Digital services will improve access, reduce isolation and challenge stigma.